Category Archives: Inspiration

Folds in the Map Wins a Foreword Reviews IndieFab Book of the Year Award!

Hello, dear readers! I’m delighted to share with you that my book, Folds in the Map: Stories of Life’s Unlikely Intersections just won a Foreword Reviews IndieFab Book of the Year Award out at the American Library Association annual conference in Las Vegas. You can check it out and also buy copies right here:

http://indiefab.forewordreviews.com/books/folds-in-the-map/

Thanks so much for your support and stay tuned for some new blog posts very soon!

How to Stop Time

I had one of those moments over the holidays.

You know the ones – when a phone call brings news so terrible that it stops you in your tracks – the kind of news and the kind of call that will stay with you forever. News for the receipt of which you will always remember exactly what you were doing, where you were standing, and whom you were with. You’ll remember that you were drinking the last few lukewarm sips of coffee from your favorite mug, the red brick-colored one with two small chips out of the rim, and that you never set it down nor drank from it, but clutched it tightly during the conversation. You’ll remember the sound of your wife’s bare feet moving across the cold wood floor and you’ll remember telling her what happened. And, as she reaches out to offer her comfort, you’ll remember the strangely dissonant image of the Christmas lights still twinkling on the tree beside you…

It was that kind of news.

Now, just a few days into the new year, on a morning where I am taking refuge from the bitter cold, work cancelled and car battery dead in the driveway, all final rights and ceremonies having been performed and all relatives safely returned home, I’m thinking about the nature of these peculiar moments in our lives – some intensely private and others nearly universal – the ones that seem to have the power to stop time.

We’ve shared many of these moments, as a nation and a world, over the course of my lifetime. As a Gen X kid, the Challenger disaster was likely the most formative of these experiences. We watched the news on one of the ancient public school TVs that Mr. Hay, my 6th grade teacher, rolled into the classroom just before lunchtime after the principal’s crackly voice had come over the intercom with the tragic announcement. 8 years later, I was sitting in a coffee shop a block away from my dormitory at the University of Minnesota, halfway through an extra-shot mocha and a cigarette, bleary-eyed and cramming for a sociology test, when I heard that Kurt Cobain was dead. 5 years after that I was stuck at the airport in Houston, returning home from Guatemala, when I first saw the grainy, haunting images of two angry young men stalking the halls of Columbine. 2 years later I was standing shocked and dumbfounded with my classmates in the atrium of the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs as the second plane hit the second tower. Just over a year ago, I was sitting in the lobby of the doctor’s office when a place called Newtown quickly overwhelmed my Facebook newsfeed.

Every generation has these shared moments. For my parents, it was the Kennedy and King assassinations and the Cuban missile crisis. For their parents, it was Black Tuesday and an end to the War. These are moments that are seared into our collective experience and consciousness – moments that serve as permanent timestamps on our shared lives.

And then there are those moments we may never share with anyone, when someone or something so precious to us was suddenly gone. Just like that. Gone. Like the moment I returned an urgent phone call from an old friend at 10:53 am on February 2nd, 2009.

Just like that.

Gone.

I’ve really started to wonder, lately, whether it’s only tragedy that has this unique power to stop time, to force us to remember every detail, to burn itself permanently into our beings.

Sitting here on this cold January morning, just a few days into the new year and just a few days after another one of those calls, I think I’m starting to piece together an answer.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see a band play – one which we’d seen a number of times before in different venues. This time, they were playing an intimate acoustic show in a small theatre, and we had been lucky enough to snatch a couple of the highly coveted tickets. It was the last performance of a 3-show stand, on a late Sunday afternoon, and it was being recorded for live album to be released in the spring. We arrived early enough to squeeze ourselves close to the stage and wait for them to come on. They emerged from backstage to hearty applause and raucous cheers and took up their instruments to play.

And then a beautiful and amazing thing happened.

The crowd fell absolutely silent and listened.

Not to just one song, but to all of the songs.

Those of you who go to shows these days know that this simply doesn’t happen anymore. Nobody was talking. Nobody was checking their phones. Nobody was getting up to go to the bar. They were listening to every single note and hearing every single word. Some had their eyes closed. Some were soundlessly mouthing the words. All were completely present and undistracted.

When we reemerged, blissfully disoriented, into the snowy Minneapolis streets some time later, it might have been hours or days or maybe just a split second. We didn’t know and we didn’t care. We wanted the experience to cling to us for as long as possible. We wanted it to have changed us in some profound and lasting way. We wanted to remember it forever.

Therein lies at least a partial answer to the question.

If tragedy can halt the wheels of time, so too can beauty.

I’ve got my long list of resolutions again this year, scrawled in another brand new notebook and sitting open on my desk while I write this. It looks pretty familiar to me after trying to live out the same words for so many years. It’s all so firm and finite. It says I’ve got 359 days left this year to get in shape, get my projects done, get my head straight, be a better husband, be a more productive employee, be a more dependable friend. It says each day that passes will either bring me closer to my goals or leave me stranded. It says I must race the calendar pages as they turn and the minutes as they tick inexorably away.

It says I’m running out of time and there’s nothing I can do about it.

But I know that’s a lie.

I’ve seen time stop in its tracks, out of tragedy, out of beauty, out of nowhere.

This year, I say to hell with this perennial list of resolutions. I’m replacing it with one simple admonition:

Let it in.

The sadness, the joy, the fear, the inspiration, the ecstatic ruin and the divine heartbreak of this life.

Let it in.

All of it.

Each and every moment.

That’s how you learn to stop time.

A Wayward Penguin

It was a simple quip at a company holiday party that started me on the topic of penguins. More specifically, partygoers were questioning a co-worker who had recently returned from a trip to South Africa, during which she had occasion to be in close proximity to a colony of Black-footed Penguins, whether they were “nice” or not. Without waiting to hear the answer, another opined that the myth of cute, cuddly penguins is merely a human construct, made to fulfill our own fragile emotional needs. I replied that I had heard they were known to be curious, but that this wasn’t exactly the same as being nice. A number of others, with the certainty that always seems to accompany the consumption of adult beverages, chimed in with their own additions to the now spirited “Penguins: Nice or Not?” debate.

It was at that moment that another reveler, who had sidled up silently to the group, shared his own tidbit of penguin-related knowledge:

“I heard that they sometimes go crazy. Seriously, I saw it on a documentary. Every now and then, one of them will just wander off and never come back.”

As you can imagine, the conversation pretty much ended right there with people nodding uncomfortably, murmuring their “hmms” and “huhs” and hastily shuffling away, myself included. But, in fact, this is exactly the kind of dark, quirky fact that tends to stick with me – and stick it has – for the three days since I heard it. Not surprising to those of you who know me, I’ve spent some of those three days trying to verify if penguins really do lose their minds and waddle off into the abyss alone.

It turns out that this puzzling assertion comes from a 2009 Werner Herzog documentary entitled “Encounters at the End of the World” which chronicles the work of scientists and researchers living at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. In one scene, while Herzog is interviewing one of the researchers about the dynamics of the adjacent colony, the camera cuts away to footage of a group of penguins heading for the open water. As they begin their long and arduous march, one turns back and returns to the nesting area. Another, however, stops in his tracks and looks back and forth between the two directions – one leading to the oceanic feeding grounds and one back to the collective safety of the colony. He seems, from all outward appearances, unable to decide what to do until he finally turns in a third direction, toward the mountains, and begins walking alone toward an almost certain death. Upon further questioning, the researcher insists that, even if the penguin had been placed back in the colony, he still would have wandered off again, on his own, in the same manner.

Apparently this happens with some regularity.

A penguin goes crazy.

I know what you’re thinking, you astute and skeptical readers. Surely there is some sound biological rationale for this strange and disturbing phenomenon. I will tell you that scientific explanations are hard to come by, but the sparse sampling of hypotheses I have found suggest that penguins possibly exhibit this behavior when they sense that they are about to die, just as many other species of animals are known to do. There is also a rigid line of thinking in the traditional psychological disciplines, of course, that humans are the only species with adequate consciousness to experience and act on things like depression and anxiety, and that we superimpose these feelings onto animals when, in reality, they are only capable of acting on basic stimulus and instinct. The case of the wayward penguin, in this vein of thought, is nothing more than a sentient creature getting its instinctive wires crossed and following a false impulse in the wrong direction. Any emotional implications we experience from witnessing such an act in nature, then, are entirely of our own conjuring.

I’m not going to try to settle the debate about whether animals have human-like emotions here in this brief and woefully under-researched blog post. I’m content to leave it to the scientists stationed at McMurdo to figure out the mystery of why, every now and then, a penguin will stop dead in his tracks, take one last look back at everything he has ever known, turn toward the mountains, and set off alone into the unknown.

It really doesn’t matter to me, in the end, whether he was driven by instinct or emotion, impulse or purpose, confusion or resolution.

It’s just that there are some days I feel a lot like that penguin.

 

The Worst (and best) Book Review I Never Got

I really wish I wouldn’t have deleted the email I received this morning, as I think this post would be so much more amusing for you with the exact quotes contained therein. I will do my best to recreate it for you nonetheless, even in the absence of the direct digital evidence. First, some context.

As many of you know, I recently published my first book, Folds in the Map: Stories of Life’s Unlikely Intersections. Having taken almost seven years to write, it was with no small amount of relief that I finally held my author’s copy in my hands last month and with no small amount of trepidation that I earnestly began submitting it for reviews a couple of weeks ago. As independent authors, this is what we spend an inordinate amount of our time doing – trying to convince critics to read and critique our work with the hope that it will grow beyond our own small circles of friends and supporters. In particular, a bit of advice I heard from several other indie authors was to submit my book to reviewers on Amazon’s Top Customer Reviewers list. After sifting through the profiles of the top 1,000 or so of these, I judiciously selected around 30 who seemed to be the best fits for my topic areas and writing style. I almost immediately received replies from a number of them, most very politely indicating they were swamped with requests and unable to provide a review, but a couple who generously agreed. One of them has now written what I would consider a very fair and detailed review and the other is still in the process of reading. Not a bad start at all.

Then there was the aforementioned email I received this morning. It was a response from a reviewer – let’s just call her Barb to protect her from any future embarrassment – who apparently has quite the pedigree at a large and prestigious university out west. As I said, I really wish I hadn’t deleted the email (angrily, I might add) so I could provide you with Barb’s actual words, but here is a brief three-part synopsis of her message:

  1. Nothing in your email made me want to review your book. I went to Amazon and read the sample chapter and that didn’t make me want to read your book either. I also read the reviews on Amazon and they also didn’t make me want to read your book. In addition, I don’t think the other Top Customer Reviewer who reviewed your book actually liked your book. She was just trying to be nice. Everyone who has reviewed your book positively must be your friends or family members. In conclusion, I don’t want to read your book.
  2. I am 67 years old and have traveled the world having all kinds of worldly experiences. I don’t want to read about your worldly experiences. In fact, nobody wants to read about your worldly experiences. Maybe if I was your aunt or grandmother I would care about your worldly experiences but I’m not so I don’t. Also, I noticed that you write about your anxiety and manic-depressive tendencies. You should really get some clinical help for these things rather than writing about them. No one wants to hear about these things. You shouldn’t be a writer. If you ever were going to be a real writer, maybe you should learn how to write fiction.
  3. P.S. Here’s a list of psychiatric resources that may be of interest to you.

I swear to you, dear readers, I am not making this up. This is pretty darn close to what she actually wrote to me. Number 3 is definitely my favorite. They seemed like pretty good resources! All kidding aside though, it’s not that I have super thin skin or hold some naïve notion that everyone will love the things I write. I think David Mitchell probably said it best in Black Swan Green when he wrote:

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.”

As independent writers, artists, and musicians we all have to be prepared to deal with criticism, solicited or not. It’s the risk we take when we choose to step beyond the warm, supportive bubbles of our adoring friends and family members and put our work out into the broader world. For us, visibility and vulnerability are inextricably linked. The forces that compel us to create and share our work are the same ones that set us up for public scrutiny. Some would argue that we get exactly what we ask for.

So it’s not the fact that my friend Barb doesn’t want to review my book that bothers me. Quite frankly, I couldn’t care less at this point if she condescended to bestow her vast, worldly wisdom upon me by means of critiquing my humble words. And it isn’t even the mind-boggling, stratospheric level of arrogance required to write such an email that has my blood boiling. It’s the not-so-subtle insinuation that only certain people have the right to make art; that art belongs to some exclusive, privileged class of intellectuals and academicians and not to all of us.

In other words, it’s not that she questioned the content of the book. It’s that she questioned my right to write it in the first place.

Barb, I want to thank you, because I’ve been looking for the words for this next part for quite some time.

I often get asked in interviews if I have any advice for young writers and I normally answer with my usual spiel about finding their own unique voices and not following whatever happens to be popular in the moment. I mean, seriously, the world can only take so many teen vampire novels. But now I think I’ve really got something to say, and it’s all thanks to you, Barb.

To all of you independent writers, musicians, and artists out there. To all of you who put paint to canvas, ink on the pages, and notes in our ears. To all of you who may never make a living doing what you love but will keep doing it anyway. To all of you who stay up all night filling up Moleskines or grinding out club gigs for drinks or saving your shitty tips for one more new brush or one more used lens. To all of you who have inspired and saved me more times than I could ever count. To all of you reading this right now. I want you all to remember something and remember it well:

Whether your art is born of rebellion or heartbreak, whether you’re trying to move the masses or just trying to save your own soul, whether you only have three chords or three words or three colors that you trust and know to be true… remember that art belongs to everyone and you get to make it however the hell you want. Put your heart out there for the world to see and take your lumps along the way. Absorb or deflect the inevitable barbs and criticism with grace and kindness. Keep submitting those review requests and accept the honest feedback you receive.

But never, ever let anyone tell you that you don’t have the right to be an artist.

Upon Watching Frank Turner Sing a Song to a Crowd That Wasn’t Listening

 “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet black bough.” – Ezra Pound

1380333_10201929296811177_701782575_nEveryone is here, huddled up under the golden glow of the marquee, taking obligatory selfies with the illuminated words SOLD OUT floating like halos above their heads. There’s no typecasting the crowd tonight – aging punks with their patch-worked proclamations safety pinned to faded hoodies, grunge-era Gen Xers rocking their torn up flannels and baggy jeans, and the ubiquitous hipsters decked out in their thrift store pleather and ironic moustaches. We’re all jumbled up and sharing the same giddy excitement while we wait in the long line for hand stamps and the neon pink wristbands that will get us up to the bar, where the punks will take their whiskey straight and the hipsters will fork over $8 a can for the same terrible piss-tasting Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys we used to steal from our big brothers and drink behind the hockey rink back in high school.

The warm-up acts are solid and do their layman’s work well, playing long just enough to build the anticipation, but not so long to get beer bottles hurled at them. Frank takes the stage at the perfect moment and we roar our approval, pressing forward when he launches into one of the big ones – an anthem like so many of his songs – exhorting us to live these unfettered, openhearted lives. This is what we love about him, that he can make us feel this way, that he can lift us up to a place where we feel like we can do big things and be so much better than we are. He is a master showman, too, breathing new life into tired and well-worn stage antics like: Just yell the name of the city you’re in! Have half the crowd sing one part and the other half sing the other! Talk about the first run down rat hole club you ever played in this city! Somehow he manages to do these things with sincerity and humor. We’re eating it up and singing every word. He has us in the palm of his hand.

We know the set lists and the trajectory by heart. We can feel the cathartic crescendo coming. This is why we came tonight – to hear what comes next.

But the triumphant, crunching power chords and piercing snare drum shots don’t come.

Instead, a droning, dissonant Roland organ fades in like a train approaching from somewhere far away. He closes his eyes and hesitantly begins to sing, his face pained and drawn, his fists clenched and held at his sides. There is no discernable melody or structure, just his groping, uncertain words… as I walked out one morning fair, I found myself drawn thoughtlessly, back to the place we used to live, and you still do, now without me… he is pouring them out like blood from an open wound, like they are the last things he would say with his very last breaths.

But the crowd doesn’t seem to notice.

They don’t recognize this song. It isn’t what they came to hear. They’ve gone back to their loud conversations and moronic hashtags.  They’ve bee-lined for the bathrooms and the bar… I have wandered around this city, like a child lost in the London fog… in this moment he is a broken man singing his heart out to an empty room, but no matter how desperately he sings, they can’t seem to hear him… I’ve had time enough to think upon, the question of what kind of songs you would choose to listen to, now that I am gone… there, in front of a thousand other souls, he appears utterly alone.

Yet as I look across the crowd, I can see amidst the oblivious and distracted masses a small handful of others held in rapt attention, serving silent witness to this public confession… so I sat down in sadness beneath your window, and I played sad songs on the minor keys of a broken piano, a sinner amongst saved men… just in front of me a grizzled, pierced, and heavily inked old punk stands with his arms crossed and his jaw set hard, tears just faintly shimmering at the corners of his eyes.

The song slowly winds its way to a close, barely audible over the maddening, murmuring din. Frank’s not done yet. He’s got two just more lines to sing before he’s finished … but as I stroked those broken keys… you did not join in harmony…

As we spill back out onto the sidewalk I wish, more than anything, that I had the power to identify each of those who had been listening. I want to tell them that I was listening, too. I want us to make a pact that we will watch out for each other from now on because the risks, for us, are so much greater in this life. I want us to promise to stick together because we’re so much more vulnerable to feeling completely alone.

And while we’re at it we should probably send a note to Frank to thank him for the song.

So he knows that someone was listening.

 

A Different Kind of Life

I was going to wait until I was feeling better to write this, but here I am anyway… writing on one of those days when something feels profoundly wrong in the universe or in the world or maybe just in me. I should have written a few days ago when I emerged from the blissful beauty and solitude of the woods where the big oaks still grow and the flowing water trickles like a meditation foundation and roars like a symphony. It always seems so clear to me, after a few solid hours of trudging down muddy trails and plunging my face into icy forest streams, what I’m supposed to be doing in this life, the things I need to let go, the precious few I’m supposed to keep and hold close. It seems so simple out there to just breathe the animate air, close my eyes, and let the sunlit autumn leaves paint my eyelids with the answers to all of my questions. It seems so easy to be free.

But this week has been a week like so many others, when my mind has become clouded with habitual worries and anxieties and it won’t let me sleep at all. I can feel it pushing at the back of my eyeballs and tensing all of my muscles. My words feel too clumsy and too numerous, my perception of safety limited to the walls of my own house. The world outside seems way too loud and far too fast – over-stimulated, overmedicated, over-processed and overwhelmed. It is at times like these I always return to the same question:

If this is the world we’ve built for ourselves, why are we so often unhappy living in it?

I think part of the answer lies in the fact that progress has now become synonymous with commodification to the point that even personal growth and transformation seem to require a vast array of products in order to be fomented in our lives. Our brand preferences have become our identities and we’ve been thoroughly convinced that changing them somehow changes us, too. From fashion to pharmaceuticals, we’re not just being sold products anymore; we’re trying to buy our own redemption.

The problem is that with each new product we buy, we become increasingly comfortable with the notion that the cures for our unhappiness exist somewhere outside of ourselves and that, by obtaining them, we no longer have use for the much tougher internal processes of reckoning and discernment. As I’m sitting here trying to write this, I’m fighting nearly constant urges to check my email, scroll through Facebook posts, turn on the TV, see what there is to buy on Amazon… anything to distract me from feeling how I’m feeling right now. With everything at my fingertips, I could easily stay distracted and detached until the discomfort passes. In fact, I could easily stay distracted and detached for my entire life. We all could. And sadly, many of us will.

Which is why I chose to write today, dear friends, even though I feel like such a mess. Tonight I’m hiding in my house, but tomorrow I’m going to try again – not to go out and buy things but to do things to get me just a little bit closer to where I want to be. Tomorrow I’m going to try to live a little more openhearted and a little less distracted. I’m going to try to pay attention to all of the beauty and the pain around me and not bury my face in my iPhone. I’m going to try to hold a few precious things close and let the rest go. I’m not going to run back into the woods this time. I’m going to stay right here.

I’m going to keep trying to live a different kind of life.

Breaking Brave

I was trolling the news feed per usual this morning, wading through the daily litany of clever quips, obnoxious reposts (“like” if you agree!), kid pictures, pet pictures, food pictures, inspirational quotes (the posting of which I am a chronic offender) and the like, when I came across this status update from an old friend:

I have recently come to terms with the fact that I have bipolar disorder. I see now that it has been plaguing me my whole life and doing damage to those I love most. Took my first step towards changing that today. I’m getting help. It’s going to be a long road. Thank you to those who have been there for me.

A simple statement, really – a message so basically earnest that it could easily suffer the swift and certain fate intrinsic to the billion other digital updates and proclamations pushing through the feeds, each one bumping the last into cyber-oblivion, someone’s deepest confession briefly replaced by an Instagram of someone else’s delicious garlic mashed potatoes – before they are both buried in the information graveyard forever. This one stuck with me, though, long after it had been replaced by the latest moronic thing Ted Cruz had to say about, well, just about anything and the new Buzzfeed list, “13 Telltale Signs You’re Stuck in the 90’s.” (I’m listening to Pearl Jam while I write this, so… yeah)

Apropos though, since I think this all started for us back then – back during the time when we were the ones to shake off the shallow indulgences of the 80’s and reclaim some of that righteous anger that had faded as all the hardcores OD’d or burned out and all the straightedges grew up. Maybe grunge didn’t save rock ‘n roll, or maybe it ruined it, but it led us back to Minor Threat and Black Flag and The Clash and everything else that made us feel angry and broken and brilliant and saved all at the same time. We weren’t riding the bleachers at the pep rally; we were walking the rusty beams of abandoned bridges, suspended and suspect, using the dizzy edges to measure our will and our worth.

It’s a miracle we lived through it. Yet, in the years between then and now, we haven’t been without casualties. We’ve watched each other be broken, one by one, in ways both subtle and spectacular. When Tony died, I made a drunken backyard bonfire of my old journals and poetry books and sent their ashes swirling into the sky – to try to shake the stubbornly clinging past – the one that would never let me back away from the ledge we once peered over together. But that aching urgency was burned into us to begin with, and no fire could ever consume it.

For better or for worse, this is who we are.

Which is why, my old friend, your update from this morning hit me so hard. While I’m still playing the tortured poet and grasping at ghosts, you’ve made the tougher choice – to look up and live on. Picking a fight with your demons is one of the hardest things we can do in this life, but you never were one to shy away from a challenge. I remember you standing under those stage spotlights and belting out your lines years ago.  I want you to know how brave I thought you were back then. I want you to know how brave I think you are right now.  And I want you to know I think you’ll win.